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Shipwreck: The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle

Shipwreck: The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle

by Gordon Thomas

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle

By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts


Copyright © 1972 Stein and Day, Incorporated
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-5892-9



Somebody on board wanted to kill him.

No record exists of the exact moment Robert Wilmott, captain of the Morro Castle, a cruise liner shuttling between New York and Havana, Cuba, finally came to this conclusion. But by the time the ship docked in Havana on September 4, 1934, the captain had decided that somebody on board did want to kill him.

Robert Wilmott, ponderously firm and earnest, lacked imagination. To the passengers aboard the Morro Castle, however, he was a public-relations press release come true, a dream of what a liner captain should be. He epitomized the advertised enchanted world of a sea cruise, in which there is no death or danger, where the seams between reality and magic are always caulked.

For four years Captain Wilmott's ship, launched during the Depression, had been the flagship of the Eastern Seaboard smart set, a haven for those eager to avoid Prohibition and forget about the Depression. On this, the 174th voyage, her reputation as a floating gin mill remained intact. As usual, nearly every stateroom was filled.

Robert Wilmott was responsible for no small part of the Morro Castle's success. Passengers frequently made sure that he was still in command of the ship before buying a ticket. He was the perfect ship's captain for passengers who had never been on anything bigger than the ferryboat to Staten Island.

In an era when many of them expected a liner captain to be either a Valentino or an old sea dog, he had chosen the latter role. His image of himself had not seemed to hurt him, though: he had something to offer everyone. For the well-off he was worldly-wise; he was the cosmopolitan who could produce an out-of-town twang; he could always act the hick inside the dinner jacket to accommodate any wealthy farmer. He enjoyed his work.

But during the summer of 1934, a series of events had occurred which endangered not only the Morro Castle, but also her master. On July 29, a meal had been served that made Wilmott ill enough to suspect poisoning; on August 4 an attempted strike had threatened to wreck the liner's tight schedule; on August 27 a fire had started in a hold containing high explosives.

At first Robert Wilmott tried to isolate each of the incidents, as if this would minimize them. But on the present run from New York to Havana, they gradually became linked together in his mind.

Since the ship's departure from New York on the afternoon of Saturday, September 1, 1934, he had shunned virtually all social obligations on board. He confined himself to his cabin, not eating, drinking only bottled water. Apart from visits from the first officer, who reported at regular intervals, his only caller was the chief radio officer bringing messages from the radio shack. Otherwise Captain Wilmott relied on the telephone switchboard to keep in touch with the bridge, the engine room, and the rest of his ship.

His absence aroused immediate speculation on the first-class decks. By the time the Morro Castle berthed at the Ward Line pier in Havana that Tuesday, even the tourist passengers were wondering why their captain had relinquished the helm, temporarily at least. The ship's officers' bland reassurance that there was nothing to worry about succeeded in pacifying only the least skeptical.

Meanwhile, in assessing responsibility for the attempted arson, murder, and strike action, Robert Wilmott had made one grave mistake.

He suspected the wrong person.

By midmorning on Wednesday, September 5, Eban Starr Abbott, chief engineer of the Morro Castle, was well into his normal routine in Havana. Satisfied that all was functioning smoothly in the engine room, he bathed and dressed carefully. He selected one uniform from his small wardrobe: an immaculate white affair with gold braid at the cuffs and epaulettes.

For four years, the boxlike cabin between the ship's two smokestacks had been his home at sea. At the end of the last voyage, Eban Abbott had removed an item of property which distinguished his from other officers' cabins: a photograph of his wife Ada. Packing for this voyage—the 113th he was to make on the Morro Castle—he had explained to Ada why he was leaving her picture behind. "There were goings-on in the ship that he didn't want me to be any part of," Mrs. Abbott later recalled. "The passengers were a fast crowd, he said—men with other people's wives and that sort of thing."

Her husband's attitude toward the passengers—as far as Mrs. Abbott could tell—was that they were to be avoided at all cost. He cringed, he told her, at their loud bonhomie on the boat deck and the gin-and-sinning at the nightly gala balls. Naturally, she took him at his word.

Many of his fellow officers believed he regarded the Morro Castle as little more than a showcase for his engines. More than once he had sharply rebuked the helmsman for his steering when the ship's navigational position did not jibe with what he calculated it should be from engine revolutions.

Eban Abbott, the son of a seaman, was raised for the sea. In 1909, the year he got his chief engineer's license, he joined the Ward Line. He was assigned to cargo boats that sweated through the tropics or buffeted across the Bay of Biscay. For twenty years, freighting was Eban Abbott's trade.

Then in 1929, he was given one of the key posts in the American merchant marine. Henry E. Cabaud, the executive vice-president of the Ward Line, told Abbott that he was being promoted to chief engineer of the Morro Castle, the fastest turbo-electric vessel afloat.

Eban Abbott followed the Morro Castle through every step in her gestation. By her maiden voyage on August 23, 1930, he knew the capacity and caprices of every generator and armature, the position of every switch and circuit breaker. The promises of the drawing board and trial runs were realized: on her first trip to Havana, she clipped twelve hours off the record.

Only one thing marred the situation for Eban Abbott: the first officer of the Morro Castle was William Warms.

Abbott and Warms actively disliked each other. In the four years since the maiden voyage, the dislike had deepened to the point where Abbott openly referred to that "worm on the bridge." Warms talked of that "stuffed tailor's dummy in the engine room."

Eban Abbott squared his white cap and hurried ashore. Waiting for him on the pier was the ship's surgeon, Dr. de Witt Van Zile. The two men headed toward the most famous tavern in the Caribbean, Havana's Sloppy Joe's.

Over lunch-time drinks the chief engineer planned to raise once again with the doctor the real reason why he disliked First Officer Warms.

Deep in number five hold, storekeeper William O'Sullivan and seaman John Gross sat on a pile of sacking and watched the Cuban stevedore gang stack a cargo of bananas, eggplants, and peppers. The laborers worked fast, keeping pace with the derricks and winches that lowered the cargo into the hold.

Ever since the discovery of the fire—the one that Captain Wilmott now believed was arson—O'Sullivan and Gross had been detailed to guard the huge steel-lined hold whenever it was open. From where they sat the two men could clearly see the scorch marks on the bulkhead near where the fire had started a bit over a week before.

They, too, had no doubt it had been deliberately started. Both were inclined to believe some sort of device had been planted in the hold just before it had been closed in New York. The Morro Castle's smoke-detecting system had alerted the bridge; the flames were extinguished by an automatic firefighting mechanism which pumped pressurized carbon dioxide gas into the hold. The incident had been over in moments.

The theory of incendiarism was supported by several clues: a small train of charred pieces of cardboard led away from the initial fire point; the heat generated was unusually intense, considering the small size of the blaze, suggesting a chemical agent had been used. The fire had been extinguished only a few feet from crates marked "sporting goods," a regular consignment in the Morro Castle's Havana-bound cargo.

Gross and O'Sullivan agreed the fire had been set deliberately; it was on the question of motive that they disagreed.

Gross maintained that the arsonist must have been a former crew member seeking revenge for being sacked. The Ward Line had a notorious reputation for hiring and firing: in an age of mass unemployment a man on the breadline could, and often did, behave irrationally.

O'Sullivan rejected this idea. He felt that more than one man had been needed to set the fire in that particular hold. Whoever did it would also have to have had special knowledge, for the crates of "sporting goods" contained cargo a good deal more dangerous than their labels would have told an uninformed observer.

O'Sullivan had discovered the trail of cardboard shreds, and the sight made it difficult for him to sleep on the run down to Havana. In his words: "My bunk was only a few feet from those crates and they contained enough guns and ammunition to blow the ship all over the Atlantic!"

The storekeeper understated the situation. For a whole year the Morro Castle had been a floating arsenal. Certainly none of her passengers had any inkling of this; neither did the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection, nor the American Bureau of Shipping. Built with a low-interest government loan of $3,422,-181, the liner had been designed for conversion into a troop carrier in the event of war. But at no time had the Ward Line or its parent company, Atlantic Gulf and West Indies, ever informed the government that a vessel "certificated for ocean passenger service" was also going to be actively involved in gunrunning.

It was not a case of sporadic moonlighting, nor merely an effort to raise the profits of shareholders. The Morro Castle was regularly engaged in a traffic in armaments. The shipments were used by the Cuban dictatorship of Gerardo Morales Machado to suppress a growing Communist influence on the island. There are strong indication s that the shipments were organized by powerful U.S. business interests concerned about the threat Communist activities would pose to the handsome profits coming from Cuban tobacco and sugar.

Such trading was not without risk. The year before, in July 1933, as the liner slipped into Havana Harbor, it had been caught in the cross fire between a group of Communist guerrillas fleeing in a boat and the pursuing police cutter. Bullets ricocheted off the liner's decks and superstructure; fortunately nobody on board was hit. Ward Line officials calmed the passengers by reporting the incident as just "a little local bother."

The "sporting goods" shipments—kegs of high explosives, drums of gunpowder, cannon powder, smokeless powder, belts of machine-gun ammunition, cartridges, bullets, and shells—continued. In one month, August 1934, the Morro Castle transported over one hundred crates of assorted weapons to Havana.

This arsenal was always unloaded at night by soldiers of the Cuban Army; often a convoy of trucks was needed to carry away the crates.

Storekeeper O'Sullivan had literally stumbled on this arms traffic in July 1934. Just before sailing from New York a hoist of drums had been gently swung aboard. Because the holds were already sealed, Captain Wilmott ordered O'Sullivan to stash the drums in the forepeak storeroom.

In the process, O'Sullivan tripped over a drum and a longshoreman revealed the contents of the cargo. "The way he talked," O'Sullivan told Gross, "led me to believe that this wasn't the first time they had loaded this kind of cargo in this kind of place." Since then O'Sullivan had kept a careful tally of weaponry going to Cuba.

To him the motive for starting a fire near the "sporting goods" was clear. To prevent these explosives from reaching Cuba, somebody was desperate enough to risk sacrificing a whole ship's crew and passengers; to murder, if necessary, up to 750 people.

Exactly who would take such chances, O'Sullivan could not say with certainty. But he hazarded a guess.

"Communists," he told Gross. "They're the ones behind it!"

Gross listened attentively as the storekeeper told him what he knew about the cargo. When O'Sullivan finished, the seaman made an immediate decision: as soon as the Morro Castle berthed in New York three days later, he would sign off the ship, even if this meant being unemployed again. Better to starve, as far as he was concerned, than run the risks entailed in serving on the ship.

In the meantime Gross offered O'Sullivan a piece of advice: he should keep his mouth shut. Communism had already gotten a toehold in the fledgling seaman's union. Every day its influence increased; it was better not talked about.

Communism had had a toehold in Cuba, as well, for some years before the Morro Castle was launched. In May 1919, a handful of professional revolutionaries from Haiti slipped ashore at Guantanamo Bay. These cacos, who were for the most part peasants, came to Cuba to spread a "workers' revolution," which they had declared months earlier against American domination on Haiti. They preached the doctrine that Cuba, like Haiti, belonged to the people.

Since 1903 American interests had exercised virtually complete control over Cuba's political and economic affairs. For $2000 a year the United States rented military bases at Guantanamo and Bahia Horda.

During this time, Americans did little to improve conditions for the local population. Statistics showed that in 1920, there was only one doctor for every 3000 people; a third of the population had intestinal parasites; the average per capita income was two dollars a month; six out of every ten rural children never went to school; 75 per cent of Cuba's arable land was controlled by American companies; U.S. control in the telephone and electric services exceeded 90 per cent.

Dedicated to the abolition of colonialism, the cacos rapidly gained ground in the 1920s through a series of propaganda exercises. By 1930 the slogan Cuba libre had become the rallying cry of guerrillas who waged sporadic urban warfare in Havana.

Their immediate goal was to overthrow the corrupt and repressive regime of the president, General Gerardo Machado; their ultimate hope was the removal of American influence from the island.

In the interests of stability, successive American administrations openly supported the dictatorship. In turn, Machado raised no awkward questions of independence. Politically, he concerned himself with the exile or assassination of hostile labor leaders—or anyone suspected of being a Communist; economically, he embarked on a reckless and enormous increase of the public debt.

In the 1930s American policy on Cuba was to "veto revolution, whatever the cause." On the occasion of a threatened rebellion by a Negro political party—the Independent Party of Color—the United States sent troops to Cuba to crush the uprising. U.S. Secretary of State Knox stated, "The United States does not undertake first to consult the Cuban government if a crisis arises requiring a temporary landing somewhere." In 1933 American Ambassador to Cuba Sumner Welles said that the prime qualification for any Cuban president must be "his thorough acquaintance with the desires of the [U.S.] Government [and] his amenability to suggestion or advice which might be made to him by the American legation in Havana."

Cuban Communists, who preached revolution against what they called "America n tyranny," were supported covertly by the Communist Party in America through advisors and funds.

Seaman Joseph Spilgins had made a discovery. Politics had nothing to do with his keeping it to himself, though; it was "simply a matter of having a full belly. When you have starved for a few weeks, even a dollar a day and all the stew swill you can swallow is mighty tempting."

The twenty-six-year-old deckhand had sailed on the Morro Castle for three day trips. Although he held no able-bodied seaman's certificate, he was carried as one—but paid the salary of an ordinary seaman: thirty dollars a month. Breakfast was coffee warmed up after the officers' mess and soggy stale bread. Lunch and dinner was stew. His bunk was between two steampipes; the blankets were filthy, and he rolled up his trousers for a pillow. Still, Spilgins found it "the most comfortable place I'd had for a long time; I didn't want to do anything to lose it."

On the second run down from New York, he was put in charge of the six starboard lifeboats. Questioned later, he admitted that he had no clear idea what this meant, other than that they should be "always on the shackles, ready to be lowered."

He had, however, carried out an inspection of the lifeboats, something no officer of the ship had done since Spilgins had come aboard. He found that several of the boats had rusted buoyancy tanks. Where the rust had become too severe, red lead had been daubed on and covered with a slick of paint.

Based on what he saw, Spilgins believed that the boats would be useless in an emergency. In his words: "Taking a chance in them would be as bad as jumping into the water. The material put in the tanks by the shipowners in this country is unbelievable."


Excerpted from Shipwreck by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts. Copyright © 1972 Stein and Day, Incorporated. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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